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A Gentle Reminder to UNHCR: Deciding Refugee Cases Is Not Just About Efficiency

August 23, 2013

In UNHCR’s review of the implementation of its urban refugee policy, there is a long section about refugee status determination, both by governments and by UNHCR. Almost everything the report says about UNHCR RSD is right. But the report is alarmingly unbalanced.

The problem is not what is said. It’s what is not said. There is nearly nothing about due process. Nearly nothing about making the right decisions, and earning the trust of refugee communities that the RSD process is fair. Nothing about the human consequences if UNHCR gets RSD wrong.

Here is how the report summarizes UNHCR’s concerns:

The survey confirmed a need to strengthen the legal and technical systems of governments who are performing RSD. When UNHCR performs RSD, the principal challenges are again related to sufficient staffing and office space to handle the volume of persons of concern approaching the office.

Notice that when governments conduct RSD, UNHCR is worried about the legal dimensions of RSD. But when UNHCR is the decision-maker, UNHCR is only worried about backlogs and resources.

The report has one general statement that UNHCR “will establish transparent and consistent RSD procedures” and there is a note that some UNHCR offices do not have adequate office facilities to provide a confidential space for interviews. But there are few other specifics about quality or fairness. The bulk of the report is about resources/efficiency, focusing on case management and database technologies. These are entirely legitimate concerns. But they are just part of the picture.

The imbalance stems, it seems, from the fact the the report is really a synthesis of perspectives from UNHCR field offices. And UNHCR managers in the field are understandably under pressure by their heavy case loads and meager resources. As the report describes:

UNHCR offices struggling with backlogs include the following:

Lebanon, India, Malaysia and Indonesia: report difficulty with delays and a backlog of RSD cases.

Egypt: Insufficient staffing and a high turnover rate make it difficult to process RSD for the Sudanese asylum seekers.

Jordan: The RSD and exclusion units have difficulty retaining staff due to “RSD fatigue”, which makes it difficult for the office to clear the exclusion backlog.

Kenya: The RSD unit has difficulty providing first instance and appeal decisions in a timely fashion (the waiting time for first instance decisions is 14 months).

Syria: Applications to reopen appeals have increased exponentially as violence has escalated.

Turkey: An increase in new arrivals since 2010 (Iranians, Iraqis and Somalis) plus the recent influx of Syrians has resulted in long wait periods (15 months until fi rst RSD appointment).

Cameroon: A high number of asylum applications without relevant claims, fraud and frequent no-shows at interview appointments create delays and disturb meaningful scheduling.

Cameroon, India, Thailand and South Africa: Inadequate Country of Origin Information (COI) slows the RSD process.

These are daunting and very real challenges. But here’s the rub. To discuss RSD challenges solely in terms of staffing, backlogs and processing time turns a high stakes, legal adjudication into just another commodity that UNHCR operations managers need to deliver as efficiently as possible.

Take for example the complaint from four offices about inadequate country of origin information. That’s a big problem, because it can lead to the rejection of refugees who are genuinely in danger. But UNHCR seems only concerned that it slows the process down. Is that the message UNHCR wants to send? That speed matters more than getting it right?

Consider this nugget, courtesy of UNHCR-Bangkok.

The pilot practice of writing reasoned notification letters specifying reasons for rejection has also absorbed staff time and slowed RSD in a few countries. The office in Thailand notes that while this is a good practice for transparency, it is time consuming in part because staff encounters difficulties in drafting reasons especially when determination is based on internal policy papers, confidential COI or contradictions found among the accounts of family members.

It is helpful to hear the views of field offices about due process, though it is not very encouraging. It is also not encouraging that UNHCR would publish such views with no commentary or gentle re-direction for its field office, as if what UNHCR-Bangkok said represents an unobjectionable concern. This is especially since UNHCR’s office in Bangkok has been reluctant to implement other due process protections as well, like the right to counsel, and thus does not have a great deal of credibility in claiming to be committed to RSD fairness generally.

For decades, UNHCR has been cutting corners in RSD. No reasons for rejection. Limited appeals. No disclosure of evidence. These shortcuts lessened the workload on UNHCR staff and made the process more efficient, in the same way that removing safety features from car design makes automobiles cheaper — and more dangerous. Now that UNHCR has slowly begun fixing these gaps in fairness there is going to be an increase in work. Good.

RSD must be fair, and fairness takes time. That’s the whole point. Otherwise, we might as well just flip a coin to decide whether a person is a refugee. For an RSD manager to complain about the time it takes to write reasons for decision is like a surgeon complaining that using sanitary precautions before cutting people open is too burdensome. People’s lives are at stake, so taking some time is a small price to pay.

It’s long overdue for UNHCR to pay adequate attention to the resource side of RSD. But to focus only on this will send the message that the ideal UNHCR RSD manager is an efficiency expert rather than someone fair minded, well versed in creating a safe environment, sensitive to the difficulties of interviewing traumatized people from other cultures, meticulous about research, and analytically thorough.

RSD should be fair and efficient. But when you can’t have both, choose fairness.

One Comment
  1. August 24, 2013 6:35 am

    Keeping in view the all points of hindrance described above e.g. staffing constraints, space, reasons of rejections, delay in reply , due process etc., the issue seemed lacking refugee dealing experience, professionalism and competency. If such requisite traits exist, one can be optimistic to handle all issues involved. UNHCR is spending millions on staff training and support. Reasons of rejections is not a big issue to give in rejection letters if one is ensured about right decision made. In each country where refugees are dealt, almost asylum seekers come with 4 or 5 types of claims in bulk, legal reasons for rejections can be placed in template to use in letters when needed without spl. extra time. In some offices such procedure is in place and maximum time for ist instance rejection is 2 months. The other big issue in delay is about COI. For this, the concerned bureau, UNHCR documentation available in abundance, or guidelines provided in refugee handbook under Establishing the Facts can solve the problem to reasonable extent. If there is a will, there is a way.

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